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The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement
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Theater Media Roundup: Theaterforte is Back

December 18, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Theater Media Roundup

A quick and dirty Theater Media Roundup for you today: Because this one is simple, and good.

Long-time foundation of the American theatrosphere (with one of the most prolific sidebars I’ve ever seen) Matt Slaybaugh of Theaterforte took some time off of blogging this year and recently returned with this video:

This is an ideal shoot-from-the-hip use of media to communicate an idea, and here’s why:

1) It’s edited. Do not. Ever. Say. The Word. Ummmmmmmmmmm. On Camera. You’d edit your blog post or play, right? Edit your video / podcast / smellcast. What’s bizarre to me is that many people fall into a habit of thinking of video & media editing as a way of *over-complicating* the content of the video. Editing a video is functionally no different from editing an essay, play, book, what have you. It’s just the art of focusing your delivery mechanism to your communication. I cannot stress this enough: The choice we have when we tap technology to serve our message or story isn’t as simple as “Ornamentation or Nothing at all. If you’d like a great example of how effective low-budget and low-time-investment simple spliced transitions can be, see also Ze Frank. I do like how Slay doesn’t overedit here – he lets us in on the energy and humility of generating honest and personal thought, without letting us get completely mired in his moments of unrehearsed distraction.

2) I know what Slay sounds like now. I cannot stress how important this is to an online collaborative culture. The big difference between the page and the stage is that you have to make choices about your voice, the words (and therefore ideas) that you stress, the intention of the words that you’re saying. Same is true of blogs versus online video. The web strips our emotions and irony out of our words, unless we’re consciously adding them back in, like this: Bam! Not so with video. Slay communicates his sincerity and excitement for the new direction of his theater company without fear of misinterpretation.

3) Slay stays honest in video. A little bit like staying crispy in milk. When you’re able to communicate honestly in one media, that’s no indication that you’ll be able to communicate in another media. This was the big leap I had to make when I started this blog: I felt like I could communicate honestly through sound, but I still struggle every post with keeping my writer’s voice honest, because it’s not a muscle I exercise as much.

The answer is often: simplify, and return to doing what you do, even if you do it in a new format.

4) Form follows function. The idea: The internet is an important tool for generating discussion and collaboration. The form: let’s remove the normal misinterpretation of tone and intention that comes with most blog posts and put a human face to things. That’s why this is a better video post than a blog post.

I think this struggle with honesty where most theaters are at right now with their New Media experiments – in both attempts at marketing and attempts at incorporating video projections into shows – it’s about learning to be honest through a new method of communication. Clearly, I still need to learn that blog posts should be short. It’s frustrating, and there are failures. It’s very surprising to me that there is so little patience in the theater community for this process, that there’s this idea out there that adding video to a theater’s website or incorporating technology into a play’s design is either universally pointless or necessarily detrimental to the work itself. Of course, we have to concede that theaters hurt themselves when they use new media in ways that are inappropriate to their identities as artisans, and that happens when they don’t take the time to develop and incorporate the technology all the way. But when a theater’s use of new media does match their aesthetic closely, sparks fly. It’s like what happens when a performer learns to really project for the first time. The voice begins to soar around the space, jettisoned from their diaphragm, and suddenly, a simple technique has amplified the performer’s power and presence. Do you need it? No. Does it help? If appropriate, hells yes.

As promised, I’ve written a little something on the process for Touch that will be showing up on the New Leaf Theatre blog today. It includes a little narrative peak into my sound design process for this show. Hope you like it – and thanks for all the words of excitement for the show, you local gang you. I can’t wait for you to see it.

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“All we can do is run out in front of it and guide people along.”

November 10, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Arts Education, On the Theatrosphere

Here’s a follow up on the impetus behind the conversation about new sound technology and how it is implicitly affecting the audience over at the Reader – and why discussions like that matter right now to theaters, to schools, to everyone with access to the internet.

Will Richardson at Web-logged busts it all open for you with advice about integrating digital technology with education from George Lucas, of all people.

“We need to get kids asking ‘why does that happen?’ as opposed to ‘why am I learning this?’”…

“The system falls apart around innovation. This is going to happen because there is a disease out there called digital technology. It is going to change education. All we can do is run out in front of it and guide people along.”

When George Lucas calls digital technology a disease, well now, that makes me sit up and ask “Why does that happen?”

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One Year, One Day & One Hundred Posts

November 06, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: On the Theatrosphere

Wow. Thank goodness WordPress counts all this for me.

This is the 100th post from Theater for the Future, just a scant few hours over one year since I started this blog in earnest, and in celebration, I’m throwing a best-of party.

I wish we had a league of awesomeness – On the joys of giving away performances for free.

An International Renaissance – Theater artist exchanges and festivals breed a delightful cross-pollination that makes everyone’s work better.

I wanted to live but I couldn’t – A tribute to injured director Bev Longo (who is now well on the long and complicated road to recovery), and a questioning of theater’s ability to really engage and generate growth in our daily lives.

Laughing Back – Tribes, Ancillary Skills, and why Theater and Web Design make a great combo. Mmmm… combos.

Great Expectations – The woes of storefront theater infrastructure. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

We Have Ignition – A single crazed week marks the beginning of two long-term initiatives for the Chicago Theater community

The Business of Changing People’s Lives – The theatrical narrative is valuable to the artist and the audience, and that value is often hidden behind a lukewarm review.

Where to Find the Good Stuff – Teaching tech to middle schoolers is a fast way to answer the question – what makes an audience connect with our work?

Chicken of the VNC – A funny name for sound design by remote control

How (and why) to write a Company Bible – A creative use of forums and wikis can help capture all that stuff you always seem to forget in tech

A strategy for educational initiatives – More hands-on, less talk-back.

More information than you can shake a stick at – The fruits of labor of 180 theater companies becomes a living report that leads to a few eye-opening conclusions. If you build the data, the knowledge will come.

Here’s a To Do List For Us – Where do we go from after the election? Thoughts on strategies for social change, reducing burnout, and using the arts to achieve both.

Thanks for reading, and your comments!

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Sonic Boom

November 05, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Sound

Man this has been a good day for blogging. I feel so delightfully inconsistent.

I just got my first email from a reader of the Chicago Reader – which just published this article from Deanna Isaacs on our recent discussion about wireless mics and sound volume trends in theater over the past decade or so.

And here I am, up in my booth again, unable to cross the street to pull my own copy to skip home with. Ah well.

So, welcome, Reader readers! Your questions are welcome about sound, art, what you prefer and why you prefer it, and how sound generally affects your experience in entertainment.

A quick note, though, if the article scares you or reminds you of how deaf you have become. If you’ve been into that shake-me-up rock ‘n roll experience, and you’re also into keeping your hearing, check out these babies:

Attenuating Ear Plugs.

They’re not for everyone, but they can be affordable and have a “flat frequency response,” meaning they don’t color or distort the sound coming into your ears – like regular ear plugs would. They just make that sound that you’re hearing about 15 – 25 decibels quieter, and protect your hearing in the process.

I personally use something like this when listening to my iPod on the train – Isolating ear buds (Not to be confused with noise-canceling headphones that actually add to the ambient noise attacking your eardrums). Reduce the noise coming in, and I can enjoy my podcasts at a nice, safe, low volume.

Delicious.

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Sounds from Grant Park

November 05, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, Sound

Happiness and fearless optimism bouncing through the corridors of Chicago’s Grant Park last night is a very unique sonic environment. Delicious.

I recorded a montage of the reflections of those words off the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago – and the sound of thousands of people walking past the Congress Hotel – the site of the last time Chicago was this involved with national politics.

Beautiful, Beautiful sounds of renewal.


Oh, and I’m happy to eat crow on this one: Kudos to the CTA for handling last night really darn well. Yes, it was slow going, but everyone was clearly working together and happy to be doing the work of getting 125,000 or so people home at midnight.

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Here’s a To Do List for Us.

November 04, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, On the Theatrosphere

By the end of this week, any way we roll, I have this feeling that the country is going to wake up to the resolution: “Party’s over. Time to fix this shit already.” There’s a good reason why everyone seems to be talking about that JFK quote these days: “The torch has been passed. Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” The time has come, and we all seem to know it.

So in order to distract me from exit polling and my browser refresh button, I’m reviewing today what still needs work close to home.

– Arts in Education is in trouble – and that is a trend that has been pretty alarmingly linked to higher rates of dropout, truancy, and lower academic achievement. (See the wonderful movie OT: Our Town for an excellent cross section of the problem, as seen from a school in Compton)

Arts coverage in the print media – and unfortunately by extension all journalism – is in trouble, and it’s our fault. You can say that ultimately our fresh perspectives are a good thing, but losing quality journalism in any sector is not a good thing. (Keep an eye on the Reader this week… Remember that little spat about sound reinforcement trends a couple weeks ago? Well Deanna Isaacs rang me up, and I’m really looking forward to the results.)

Our work needs to be better, and have greater resonance with more of the public. That pretty much always seems to be the case, and it doesn’t mean we need to be dumbing down our work. If anything, it means we need to be more clearly insightful and truthful in our work. But I think the stakes are suddenly higher now – we’re at a time where doing that self-improvement and honing work could actually make a difference for our society’s future.

– We have lots of policy makers on the blogosphere, and a much smaller ability to implement those policies. We all want to take action to do the right thing. But we must continue to educate ourselves, and test our assumptions with the best data that we can collect. Good arts policy (whether it is better opportunities for women playwrights or fair pay for arts leadership or stronger regional connection to theaters) demands the best ideas, and both the blogosphere and the big-box theaters and organizations succeed in generating better policy when that policy is informed by real trends and real data. Ignore the data, or fail to see the whole system, and our policies will simply move the problems around.

You know who taught me that? Barack Obama. As you were.

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Theater Media Roundup: The Gurney & The Christians

October 21, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Theater Media Roundup

For many reasons, I think that one of the best stabilizing skills you can invest in for your personal theatrical work and the work of your company is learn a base competency in creating new media – Internet based graphics, web experiences, podcasts, and YouTube-ready video. In the coming decades, not having these skills is going to be increasingly crippling as students who were born with these skills emerge from their collegiate training grounds onto the storefront scene.

One of the reasons that there have been so many union vs. corporate battles over New Media is that the form is so young that most artists were slow to begin to speak the language. But when we do speak the language, we’re better able as artists to control the form. And the form needs help – there are many more folks out there capable of creating a video and posting it online than there are who can make that video say something.

I can’t tell you the number of times daily that having skills related to creating new media has been directly helpful to my work in theater. This kind of goes without saying on the theatrosphere, I know. But it’s a freelance income source compatible with any kind of artistic lifestyle that shouldn’t be ignored.

As my work with Marshall Communications continues to demonstrate to me, having strong new media savvy is much more rigorous than simply getting a website up. It’s about learning to talk about your work and even display your work through new media formats in a way that doesn’t distort your message. It’s about being ready as a theater company to invest and reap the rewards of having ancillary skills and equipment.

Some of the skills I think every theater company needs to have in its bag of tricks, whether it is in-house or through a friend:

Graphic Design (including the industry-standard Adobe CS3 suite)
PHP / Joomla / Ruby on Rails Dynamic Web Programming (for blogs and quick updating of web sites)
Video Production (for archives and promotional materials)
Podcast Production (for readings, promotions)

I’m happy to announce a periodic series of posts that I think I’ll actually be able to keep up on a regular basis (because this stuff is so darn exciting when it’s done right!): the Theater Media Roundup. I’ll be sending out previews and reviews of some of the most successful theater-generated videos, podcasts, sites that promote the work of theater artists. If you’ve got something that you think is changing the way you talk about your show to an audience, send me your stuff!

Right off the bat, let’s mention something already talked about several times on this and other blogs: The Mammals and the DevilVet’s innovative play-as-graphic novel project. Check it out, Sid.

———————–

In the Roundup Today:

YouTube Video promotion for The Gurney (at Strawdog, opening November 3)

What’s great:
For an independent theater project, this has some great polish. It borrows heavily from the white-flash / disconnected preview styles of The Ring and 28 Days Later (so it also inherits some of their baggage), but it also relies on more simple effects like that final disconnected voiceover so it is also genuinely and simply creepy. Best part? It’s specific enough about the story line to have some truth in advertising. You know what to expect at the show itself.
Can you hear that great sound design? Good timing, balanced perfectly with the vocals, and well-buttoned. Perhaps we have veteran sound designer Joe Fosco to thank!

What needs work:
Knowing creep-out movement queen Tiffany Joy Ross as I do, there are some shots of her that could use a bit of editing snippage to really reinforce the disorientation and fear that they’re going for. The timing of the surgical mask and final shot are working brilliantly, but less clear are the more awkward shots of her curtsying like a zombie and “Take this”.
Not knowing the script, I can’t really say that this is what is going on, but one habit of theater artists creating their own promotions is that they try to stick too religiously to the story of the play, rather than creating a stand-alone teaser story for the promotion itself. Maybe this is what is going on here?

———————–

Video Trailer for The Christians, independent movie written and directed by playwright Stephen Cone, and produced by Split Pillow (who shares some staff with the Side Project Theater Company)
(Screening on November 7th, 7:45 at the Gene Siskel Film Center)

What’s great:
The core story of the film is made really clear without giving away too much or being too obnoxiously direct. Cone has always been a master at negotiating human stress in religious dramas, so I’m not surprised that he fares well in the often disheartening task of creating a trailer. This trailer represents his storytelling sophistication well.

Also, check out how well the silence is used, especially in the beginning of this trailer. There’s this sort of sinking sensation you get in the first few moments as hectic shots are accentuated with a close silence… that snapping sound that echoes out and bookends the trailer is exactly the right tone – like the tide going out before a tsunami hits.

What needs work:
Was that a hanta virus-laden explosion I heard? I get the many reasons not to show the devastation of the apocalyptic event in question – it’s a film (on an independant budget) about people and the faith that drives them, not about sound design – but the sound effect itself for what appears to be the catalyzing moment for the plot doesn’t match the ominous portents of the rest of the trailer. The tsunami I mentioned above should be the equivalent of a balloon overflowing with anxiety bursting apart. It sounds instead like the Jolly Green Giant farted in a dumpster.

Fun Fact:
The Christians happens to have been filmed on location in TJ Ross’ apartment. I keep expecting her to walk by these folks with her surgical mask and offer them some of her deliciously creepy hors d’oeuvres.

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Should I dress as Sound Hitler or Sound Pol Pot?

October 10, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Collaboration, In a Perfect World, Sound, Teachable Moments

It was only a matter of time, I suppose. The Reader has accused me of being a tyrant. And it didn’t have anything to do with either this blog or the user interface of the CTDB! I feel honored.

Deanna Isaacs says this about the sound for Million Dollar Quartet:

I’m talking about amplification that distorts the music, assaults the audience (Didn’t they crank the volume at Gitmo?), and sends you home with a tinny ringing in your ears. In the case of MDQ, it’s also historically inaccurate. I left the Goodman thinking we need to end the tyranny of the great and powerful–and probably deafened–guy in the sound booth. It doesn’t look like this’ll change unless we speak up, so let’s hear from you now–while we can still hear at all.

It would be grossly irresponsible of me to get into the he said she said of specific choices that led to the overall volume and mix that makes Million Dollar Quartet the musical that it is, or, on the other hand, to challenge the aesthetic validity of Deanna’s opinion. She has a perfectly valid point of view and experience of the show here, and has a right and a responsibility and a deadline to her readers to express it. There are also equally valid aesthetic reasons for turning up the decibel level, however, and the disconnect between the two opinions comes down to a question of: how loud should our theater be to appeal to an American audience?

What I do feel I can address here from within my massive bunker of conflicted interest – and hopefully continue and support Deanna’s discussion with the audience – is a lack of sophistication among the general public (greatly reinforced by barbed comments like Deanna’s and other theater critics) about the what, who, why and how sound choices like overall volume level get made. By a complete team of collaborators.

Here’s something you may not know: Sound Engineers and Designers are very concerned about the deafening of America. We value and protect our own hearing on a daily basis. And we also argue about the ethical implications of our own amplification techniques very passionately within the community and in our production meetings. Just as many musical engineers are moving to educate the public about the potential pitfalls of overly compressed dynamics on our hearing and in the quality of our music (see link above), I think it’s time that sound engineers, designers, and musically-savvy artists start a meaningful dialogue about how to balance sound systems to both appeal to a THX-soaked public and a community of theatrical purists who react violently against amplification. That’s really the story here – you have two types of audiences at war with each other, often in the same house – one that adores their ipods and needs to feel their sound and one that comes from a classical or purist standpoint and doesn’t want that aspect of culture to touch their art. I sympathize with both of these perspectives, and my designer tells me of an experience of his:

There was one night when someone went up to [my sound engineer] at intermission and said, “It’s so loud! Why does it have to be so loud?” and almost concurrently someone ELSE came up to the mixing board and said, “This is the best any show has ever sounded here.”

So we all have a valid opinion. That’s fine. At the same time, if the conversation continues like it has (ever since sound amplification became part of theater) sound engineers will remain the public whipping boys and girls of everything wrong with the mix of technology and art. The conversation that everybody wants – the one where the two audiences get heard and dare I say find a way to compromise (The bad idea that would lead to a better idea is something like a volume rating system – this show is rated RFL for Really Flippin’ Loud). Also in that discussion should be some theatrical reporting that investigates WHY shows are getting louder and louder at a rapid pace, and WHO is responsible for making those choices. Hint: there is no simple answer here. Like any battle in the culture war, there is a massive disconnect in the conversation which contributes to frustration from audience, critics, designers, and operators alike. Critics and the audience they represent sometimes seem to believe that sound engineers control the volume of the show with one of those knobs from Spinal Tap that goes to eleven, and that we engineers tend to be irresponsible doofs who are obsessed with squeezing more volume out of a sound system. As a result, the engineers are the ones that people come to with complaints. Which is sad and ultimately ineffective, since sound engineers and designers are not always equipped or empowered to lead and engage a public dialogue. You would not believe how hurt and hurtful people are made by sound that makes them feel uncomfortable… whether its too loud or too quiet.

So who is responsible for the sound that you hate? Here’s a comparison for you. Most critics (and many in the audience) are really adept at picking apart a finished production apart and identifying who made a particular choice as it relates to story: did the actor do that because the playwright told him to? Because it’s part of the director’s vision? Or is it just a choice that the actor made that night? The same process exists for sound, and the responsibility rests on the team of collaborators pretty much as follows:

The sound engineer / operator is primarily responsible for recreating the mix or sound design consistently as dictated to her by the sound designer. This responsibility of consistency does include things like communicating with performers and scenic crews to make sure their use of microphones, instruments and their own voice stays consistent under regular wear and tear, sickness, etc. The sound engineer is NEVER allowed to change the show based on what an audience member or critic is telling him that day.

The sound designer is responsible for translating the aesthetic desires of the director and music director into a technical configuration that allows for aesthetic flexibility, acoustic control, and support to the performers. They educate the creative team about what is physically possible for a sound system to accomplish, and they put their name on the sonic aesthetic choices being made. That said, if a director (or a producer) feels that a choice is inappropriate for the overall artistic quality of the show, they will give the sound designer a note. And then another note. If it gets really hairy, they might withhold a paycheck or two. The sound designer’s role is often one of the most complexly political in the creative process, because they must serve many functional requirements and still find artistic fulfillment through their work at the end of the day..

The director, as she relates to sound, is there to balance all of the sonic elements and make sure they work together to support the story being told and the overall artistic quality of the show

The producer foots the bill. Producers have to think about things like “can we sell this show,” and, “what equipment can we cut from this rental list to save money, and will it damage the aesthetics of the show,” and, “what could we do to maximize the appeal of this show to a broad market?” As a result, they often have to make wildly unpopular decisions.

One of the best thinkers about how a sound designer can navigate the various demands of performer, audience, producer and director just happens to be the sound designer in question, Kai Harada, who published his excellent sound handbook free online almost a decade ago. He has a lot to say on the question of pleasing everyone as a sound designer, and it’s a great primer on the sonic tightrope act if this is a subject you get passionate about:

The sound designer has a great duty, both due to the scope of his or her activities, but also because sound reinforcement is so unquantifiable. Everyone wants to hear something differently. The sound of the show can change within seconds– so many factors can influence the propagation of sound from Point A to Point B: humidity, temperature, full house versus no audience, tired operator, warm electronics, a singer having an off-day, a sub in the pit, etc., etc., whilst other departments have somewhat more quantifiable parameters under which they operate. Scenery might be at Point A, Point B, or somewhere in between, and it will travel from A to B in a given duration, but there aren’t many factors that can influence it greatly, short of some catastrophic automation failure. Lighting instruments are predictable beasts, as well; granted, voltage drops and old filaments can vary the quality of light projected from an instrument, but for the most part they turn on to the intensity set by the designer on the computer and stay that way. Sure, a bad data line can wreck an entire show very quickly, but that’s why we have backups. Humans who control the button-pushing on the electrics desk can influence the look of a show, too, but not so drastically as a sound operator. Let’s not forget that sound is a relatively new participant in theatre, and is often greatly misunderstood.

Thus, the designer must not only justify his or her design and equipment, but appeal to the wants of many– the director has an idea of the way the show should sound, and so does the designer. Let’s not forget the music director, the orchestrator, the dance arranger, the producers, and the choreographer. Then the cast needs to hear onstage. Then the orchestra pit members need to hear in the pit. Then the costume designer doesn’t like look of so-and-so’s microphone. Politics plays a large and important role in the designer’s life. To paraphrase something a Broadway designer once told me, “Anyone can draw up designs and do equipment lists; the key is to getting other people to do what you want them to.” Theatre is a collaborative effort, and no one knows that better than the sound designers.

If we value the conversation at all, theater reporters should get more involved in this increasingly complex and controversial aspect of theatrical production. My belief, and it is one that is shared by several sound designers, is that sound is getting louder because of sound’s appeal to audiences, not because of all those reckless fascist dictators up in the booth. While I acknowledge the absolute inarguable validity of Deanna’s experience with this show, she does not do me the same service by indulging the urge to scapegoat me, the operator, for her experience. I think Deanna and reporters like her need to first investigate the many factors that cause our negative experiences with sound reinforcement in the theater. If you disagree with an artistic choice, explode open the conversation. Maybe some intrepid reporter could take the Bob Woodward approach and embed themselves in an artistic conversation as an observer… from concept to execution, and do the work of pinpointing exactly where creative teams could improve their response to audience demands for a quieter show. Wouldn’t that make for a more rich understanding of theater, and a more vital conversation about theater?

My booth is open, though you might have to speak up over all this fantastic noise I’m reinforcing.

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